In Promises, ambition poisons the scrappy, political atmosphere of a Parisian banlieue. Opening the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons sidebar, this concise and stirring drama manages to dissect a host of philosophical questions about integrity and public office without losing sight of the quieter, more specific constituent stories that make answering them urgent.
Clémence (Isabelle Huppert) is the enterprising mayor of a town chronically plagued by crisis, from high unemployment and poor social services to exploitative slumlords. At the top of her long list, however, is Les Bernardins, a large housing complex in desperate need of renovations. At the start of the film, which was directed and co-written by Thomas Kruithof (The Eavesdropper), the dingy complex, with its peeling, muted chartreuse walls, is flooding. Water, from an unknown source, leaks from the ceilings, soaking individual units and the building’s narrow hallways. Michel Kupka (Jean-Paul Bordes), a quiet mustached man who owns a condo in the dilapidated building, seethes as he tries to help his neighbors.
Promises (Les Promesses)
A stirring film about political ambition and community.
At the same time, in a different part of town, Clémence, her deputy, Naidra (Naidra Ayadi), and her co-conspirator and chief of staff, Yazid (Reda Kateb), are trying to pitch a rescue plan that, if successful, could win them critical funding for the building. But there is a problem: Michel has written a fiery, detailed letter outlining the incompetence of Clémence’s administration to Jérôme Narvaux (Laurent Poitrenaux), a high-ranking official responsible for proposing the plan to the prime minister. Until real changes are made, Michel writes in the letter, he and the other tenants refuse to pay their exorbitant monthly fees. The move puts the politicians in a tricky position. Without the fees, Jérôme is reluctant to propose anything to the city’s budget officials.
This involved setup initiates a series of events that up the narrative stakes of this smart film (Kruithof’s co-writer is Jean-Baptiste Delafon). After a dispiriting meeting of concerned parties, Promises splits into two stories that eventually come together in an affecting, if a little predictable, ending. One thread follows Clémence who, after 12 years in office, decides not to run for another mayoral term. Reserved and unambitious, she, at the start of the film, represents a rare and idealistic politician, one whose desire to help her constituents outweighs the pursuit of power and title. But that soon changes when Clémence, previously reluctant to let herself dream, hears that she might be appointed to a minister’s position in Paris. Huppert sensitively portrays Clémence’s rapid transformation and her increasing isolation as she contends with the strength of her values. Will she betray them for the sake of a power she never acknowledged wanting?
Watching this unfortunate evolution is Yazid, whose relationship with Clémence becomes one of the most enjoyable parts of the film. In the beginning, their dynamic mirrors that of a student and teacher. Yazid has never claimed political purity (a particularly harrowing series of scenes involving a young Black man in Les Bernardins shows just how much he enjoys a power trip), but still he struggles to understand his mentor’s transformation. Observing her, in the end, helps him clarify and even adjust his wants. Huppert’s and Kateb’s performances, their subtle shifts in tone and body language as the chasm between Clémence and Yazid grows, make watching the crumbling dynamics of that relationship more exciting.
If Huppert and Kateb’s dynamic (coupled with sharp editing by Jean-Baptiste Beaudoin) helps keep the film’s momentum, then the parallel narrative about the tenants of Les Bernardins grounds it. There isn’t a shortage of inspiring speeches or passionate monologues about the role of a politician in Promises, and at times the film veers into overly cerebral and borderline sanctimonious territory. What pulls it from the brink, however, are the moments when the tenants and their collective organizing efforts become the focus of the narrative.
As Clémence and Yazid war with themselves and one another, the tenants of Les Bernardins try to get their needs met and their building repaired. “The state will always find a way to do nothing,” Michel says at one point. The implications of this sentiment hang over the rest of the film, while personal and political issues repeatedly stymie efforts to help these tenants. It brings into sharp relief the real crisis of political ambition: the way it always manages to leave the people behind.